From its humble beginnings as a 19th-century frontier outpost through its eventual cigar industry boom, the Tampa Bay area has transformed into a sophisticated destination. It's replete with world-class art, museums and dining, not to mention well-preserved historical sites and popular beaches and parks. No wonder more than 20 million people visited the area in 2016.
Your adventure wish-list for this western Florida base could easily grow out of control, so let us suggest a few can't-miss sights, eats and activities to help you narrow it down.
Explore area beaches
To make a trip to Florida and not see any beaches would be ludicrous. Lucky for you, there are plenty sprinkled throughout town and along nearby Gulf Coast stretches. Within its borders, Tampa lays claim to a few solid options, such as Ben T. Davis Beach, a narrow, sandy stretch lining the Courtney Campbell Causeway, where sunsets are epic and picnics are definitely in order. Davis Islands Beach, occupying the southern end of a two-island archipelago not far from downtown, is prime for sunbathing and wading, and it's also an ideal place for canines to expend some energy.
Dedicated beach-goers should make the trek to Fort De Soto State Park, an undeveloped coastal oasis of five interconnected keys, each full of diverse wildlife. More than 300 birds species make the islands their home, and flora such as mangroves, wetlands, palm hammocks and hardwoods can be found here too. Another natural beauty is Caladesi Island State Park, a picture-perfect white-sand retreat accessible by boat or ferry. It's a popular spot for picnickers, sunbathers and saltwater anglers, not to mention kayakers who come to glide along the bay and mangrove forests.
Visit top museums
A former Victorian resort combining Moorish, Near Eastern and Byzantine architectural styles, the awe-inspiring Henry B. Plant Museum is now a National Historic Landmark. Visit the ornate edifice to learn about the museum's namesake and view the artifacts and furniture Mr. Plant and his wife collected from journeys abroad. Also ideal for history lovers is the Tampa Bay History Center, with exhibits on the area's first inhabitants, important historical figures and crucial Gulf Coast industries.
Visit a Mediterranean-style garden and a recreated cigar-worker's home at the Ybor City Museum, housed in the historic Ferlita Bakery building. Kids will be entertained for hours at the Glazer Children's Museum, home to a cruise-ship-themed playground, a kid-sized firehouse and the KidsPort water table simulating a shipping channel. Bonus: The museum is near the Tampa Riverwalk, a waterfront path spanning nearly two-and-a-half miles.
Go for golf
A year-round getaway for golf enthusiasts, the "Golf Coast" is true to its nickname. More than 10 golf courses are located here. Start at the 18-hole TPC Tampa Bay, named one Florida's top five golf courses by Florida Golf Magazine, and then head to the 4-star Saddlebrook Resort to play at one of two on-site courses.
Hardcore golfers won't blink an eye at the 60-mile trek to Streamsong Golf & Clubhouse, woven through sand dunes, ridges and lakes, which offers a restaurant and golf shop. The Copperhead course at the Innisbook Resort & Golf Club, northwest of Tampa, hosts the PGA Tour's Valspar Championship each March and was named among "Top 100 Courses You Can Play" by Golf Magazine.
Wander through markets
There's no better way to see how locals live than to visit one of the city's buzzing weekend markets. Luckily, the Tampa area has no shortage of them. Visit the Ybor City Saturday Market, the largest continually operating outdoor market in the Tampa Bay area, where vendors sling everything from artisan bread and gourmet sauces to jewelry and pet treats.
Catch the North Tampa Market, held every other Saturday at a park located behind the Carrollwood Cultural Center, for fresh produce and locally made crafts.
On Sundays from October through May, the Corey Avenue Sunday Market offers organic vegetables, locally made crafts and even live music in nearby St. Pete Beach. Another Sunday favorite is the Fresh Market at Hyde Park Village, an open-air shopping center with high-end boutique retailers, where around 100 vendors convene every week to sell their goods.
Behold amazing art
Even if you dedicated your entire Tampa trip to visiting art museums, art centers and galleries, you'd be unlikely to run out of options. The area plays host to renowned institutions like the Tampa Museum of Art, home to a wide collection of Greek and Roman works of art, and the famed Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, where you can view the largest collection of Dali's surrealist works outside of Europe. Marvel at modern art at Cass Contemporary Art, a gallery and exhibition space housed in a 3,000-square-foot building that opened in 2014 on busy MacDill Avenue.
Don't miss the Morean Arts Center's Chihuly Collection, a display of colorful large-scale glass sculptures by celebrated artist Dale Chihuly, whose whimsical works have appeared in museums, art centers and gardens in the U.S and abroad. For something under the radar, see an exhibition at Coco Hunday, an underground art space created by artist Jason Lazarus that hosts solo presentations from established and upcoming artists.
Indulge in a retail therapy session
Hit up boutique shops and popular restaurants at Hyde Park Village, a collection of retailers clustered around a center plaza with a fountain. At CineBistro on Swann Ave, you can dine and drink while viewing the latest blockbusters and indie hits. Get the more traditional mall experience at International Plaza and Bay Street, offering clothing, jewelry, decor, footwear and electronics at more than 200 specialty stores.
Love getting your hands on rare gems? Browse more than a thousand booths at the Big Top Flea Market, open every Saturday and Sunday. You'll see everything from fresh produce to new and used clothing.
Eat, drink and be merry
Eating out is a crucial part of any trip — it's another lens for viewing local life and culture. Dine at Tampa's oldest restaurant, Columbia Restaurant, operated for 113 years by five generations of the same family, starting with Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr. Today, the restaurant is known for its exquisite Spanish dishes and its colossal space — more than 1700 seats are spread through its 15 dining rooms.
A lip-smacking experience awaits at Al's Finger-Licking Good Bar-B-Que, serving Tennessee-style smoked ribs, beef and chicken since 2003. Not a meat-eater? Vegan International Kitchen and Market and Fresh Kitchen are both excellent places to find healthy, plant-based fare.
Seek out local beers and creative brews at Angry Chair Brewing, pouring IPAs, sours and stouts in a funky, eclectic space in the up-and-coming Seminole Heights neighborhood.